Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Academic kindness

There's this Big Famous Scholar in my Field, at another university halfway across the country, and he and I have become friendly, mostly by email. He just emailed me to offer encouragement on my book proposal (he kindly asked to look it over a couple of months ago and gave helpful suggestions), and offered to be identified as a reference for its quality, and encouraged me to drop his name when I contact publishers.

I find myself a little bit teary with gratitude at this communication. Not because it's a guarantee of any publishing success, because c'mon; and not so much because of his much-respected intellectual validation of the project. But really, I'm so totally moved by the kind gesture of his unprompted note of encouragement.

So much of academia is characterized by mental insularity and self-absorption--or at least, that's certainly been the default atmosphere as I've jumped the various hurdles of the academic life. (Weirdly? no perspective on whether it's weird... Anyone out there have a different kind of experience?) I remember when I was studying for my phd qualifying exam, and had to prepare a couple of lengthy reading lists in my historical field and another in an additional field of specialization: not a single person who'd gone through the process before would let me look at their lists for guidance. Same stone wall when I asked to see people's job application letters. And, post-PhD, it continued with the third-year review file. And now, tenure file. And book proposal documents (prospectus etc.). In each case, a template would have been useful--not because I need to plagiarize, but so that I could get a sense of what that particular document looks like, what its protocols and conventions are. Now, I've made it my tiny little mission to share my completed documents to anyone who asks, in part because I was so frustrated (and, in truth, a little tiny bit hurt) in my efforts to find models for my own documents.

It's in this context that I feel so grateful for the support of BFS, who seems to regard his great success as an opportunity to mentor and guide those coming up after him. I heart him.


jw said...

This makes me both happy and sad. Happy that, in preparing my own reading lists I've had multiple offers of fellow PhD students -- especially those who like myself are studying early modern English lit -- to see their documents. *All* of their documents: reading lists, prospectuses, even their exam questions. But not their exam answers, though they might if I asked. Not to mention, of course, the help you have offered as well.

And then sad that you have not had the same kind of communal support that I'm currently receiving.

I suppose there's a happy at the end as well, what with BFS providing you some support that giving you the desire to share your work as models.

I'm just glad that I'm behind you. Is that tacky?

Dr. Write said...

I had a mixed experience, some sharing, some not, but in general my fellow students were quite generous. I don't think I could have survived, mentally, were it not for meeting with fellow students to rehearse our answers and convince ourselves we weren't crazy. Same with job letters since then.
So it's good you're sharing, and providing a good model for what to do and that BFS is also sharing. Maybe the academic world is improving?

Lisa B. said...

Since I haven't really had an academic career--it's just not the same, where I am, even though technically it's higher ed--I just rely on the stories of others, but even the snarky stories aren't quite as bad as what you've described. Maybe it's where you went--super competitive programs, etc. But it's a good story, about BFS, and also of course the you story, generous, thoughtful, kind you. Remaking your little corner of academia, one shared document at a time. Good for you.

Flavia said...

How wonderful. And if it's who I think it is--I've had limited interactions with him, but always surprisingly kind and helpful, given how very barely I know him.

Funny, but although I agree with you about the isolation and self-absorption of the profession, and would never call my grad school experience warm and supportive, I never lacked for sample docs--every year the class coming up for their orals had a pot-luck party thrown by the preceding class, who provided their lists and their advice some 6 mos. before the thing, and our DGS and job-placement officers were really good about providing sample dissertation prospectuses, job letters, and all that stuff for us at the appropriate moments.

Hm. Maybe I had it better than I thought!

Blue Cheese said...

Those of us who continually benefit from your generosity thank you. And promise to share with others too.

Had an experience similar to yours with BFS while here researching in Tejas. Ran into a scholar-friend who kindly offered to pass my proposal to her editor at Big Name University Press (once it is finished). If I wasn't so freakin' tired, I would have cried right there in the cafe. Very unusual in my academic experience.

Renaissance Girl said...

Flavia: I'm filled w/ jealousy re: the orals party. That's cool. I had a dear Victorianist friend and we did all sorts of muddling-through together, but I'd have liked to have more guidance from Renaissance folks ahead of me. You and Dr. W found the sweet stuff. [And I think you can probably guess which BFS I mean, Flava-Flav: in my particular subfield, he's made his bones--and I think his recent book touches a bit on your own body of work, so to speak.]

LB: Yeah, competitive programs, but so was Flavia's. I'm beginning to think that I, perhaps, smell bad, or something.

YOU FINE PEOPLE, obviously, are fabulous and kind, and I sleep better at night knowing that if I asked for document-advice, you'd all spring to the call.